Ritual sacrifice and the ANC centenary

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

Happy birthday, African National Congress. Congratulations on your centenary, and thank you for your tireless efforts to liberate South Africa from the unprincipled inequality that the majority of our population suffered under. As you enter your second century of existence, please consider eliminating various items of your own cultural baggage that are themselves unprincipled, and that become increasingly offensive within a modern democracy.

Besides the most obvious and most toxic tendencies, such as a patriarchal disposition that often seems inseparable from misogyny (as with President Zuma’s statements in his 2006 rape trial), or the apparent desire of some of your members to introduce new forms of racial nationalism, you could perhaps start with something small.

Small, but still meaningful, in that it would demonstrate not only a concern for the suffering of sentient creatures, but also an awareness that actions should be justifiable on objective evidence and impartial reasoning – and that nothing can be justified by an appeal to cultural traditions alone, no matter how longstanding those traditions are.

Please think about whether the 21st century is still an appropriate time to be slaughtering animals in rituals such as ukweshwama. I do understand that killing a bull or an ox with a spear is a deeply symbolic act, and that these non-human animals are not simply meat, but are instead signifiers of things like prosperity, or devices by which you attempt communication with ancestors.

My understanding here is of course not a lived one, and is no doubt incomplete. But you surely know as well as I that prosperity begins with gainful employ, and that the bread and circuses nature of some of what went on in Mangaung are a time-honoured (and no doubt useful) way of distracting those who don’t have jobs from that uncomfortable truth. These rituals unite, placate, and give hope for a future that might escape resembling the past.

Hopefully, you’re also aware that your ancestors are in fact dead and no longer capable of interceding on your behalf, no matter how many animals are slaughtered. Again, paying one’s respects to the dead is something we can all understand – but causing another animal to suffer as a method for doing so requires a justification beyond the simple assertion of cultural habit.

As I’ve said before, defending a practice on grounds of culture alone offers a slippery slope towards not being able to condemn anything at all. And we’d like to be able to condemn some things that are part of some cultures, like racism or sexism. We’d like to be able to say they are wrong – not simply illegal or unconstitutional.

So what else stops outsiders such as myself from saying that it’s wrong for President Zuma to have participated in the ritual killing of a black bull earlier this month, during the ANC’s centenary celebrations? The argument can’t end with silencing any opposition, simply on the grounds that they aren’t themselves part of the culture in question.

Perhaps those of us on the outside can’t say it’s wrong to stab a bull with spears, or (in more enthusiastic versions), to rip out its tongue and tear out his eyes. At least Zuma didn’t attempt to have sex with the bull, as Swaziland’s King Mswati is recently alleged to have done. Not simply because we don’t understand, but because we’re being inconsistent.

Or so one claim goes: those of us who eat meat cannot judge these rituals as wrong, because of our own complicity in needless suffering via the industrial farming of non-human animals for food. But this appears to privilege the relativistic defence of the argument from culture, in that it is possible to be a less or a more compassionate meat-eater, whereby those who are concerned with suffering can attempt to source their meat from farms which try to minimise it.

And even for the suffering that can’t be avoided in an omnivorous diet, there is still a noticeable difference between killing something slowly, tormenting it with the pointed end of a spear in a drawn-out ritual, and putting a bolt through its brain for the purposes of securing dinner. The former exhibits a bloodlust, the latter a dietary preference.

Wally Serote was quoted in the Mail&Guardian as saying “We spill the blood of these animals in the hopes that our ancestors will help us prevent spilling human blood in the future”. But what will stop us from spilling human blood in the future cannot be our deceased ancestors. It can only be the examples that they have set, and the lessons we can learn from those examples.

Perhaps we can best avoid spilling human blood in the future by continually moving toward a future in which needless suffering is always to be avoided, and in which we make our choices based on reasons that would be considered defensible, if not always acceptable, to any impartial observer. The ritual slaying of non-human animals, by contrast, is an artefact of the past.

Cultures can and frequently do change, even though these changes are sometimes slow to occur. And attempts to change them from the outside are typically doomed to failure, especially because they might be difficult to understand from a distance. In the 2009 case brought against King Goodwill Zwelithini, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize and others by Animal Rights Africa, Judge Nic Van der Reyden said it was difficult for him to rule on the matter of ukweshwama as the ritual went to the heart of Zulu tradition.

And so it does, as evidenced again in Mangaung last week. But the fact that these rituals are not proscribed by law does not mean we should endorse them, simply through a desire to appear politically correct. For those who engage in these rituals, their legality means they are permissible – not that they are necessary, or even appropriate.

If they are not appropriate, discovering this requires giving it some thought – not simply asserting the privilege of culture, but rather, debating the issue in order to determine which cultures happen to have gotten this one right, and whether the others shouldn’t consider changing their minds.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.